Morning worked its gritty way into my dreamless sleep, hard-edged and abrasive. I was cold, I discovered, lying naked and shaking on the bed, the fire just a memory.
Two jugs of wine on an empty stomach. Not a promising beginning to my stay in Mountain Hole. But today would be better.
A demon was shifting and twisting in my gut, and my bladder was so full it hurt. My head harbored a dull ache directly behind my eyes, but I’ve certainly known worse.
I slid out of bed and half-crawled to the stone fireplace where my clothes hung, dry and smelling of smoke. I slipped into them carefully, buckled my belt with its hunting knife very loosely around my middle, then walked, partially hunched over, down the stairs and out the back to the privy. I stood for a full minute while the day improved around me, then tightened my belt.
My stomach would be harder to placate. I made my way slowly to the tavern and found a spot among the miners having a meal and a beer before they began their daily toil. Elena emerged from the back, bearing plates of something I chose to think of as hash. Her other eye was swollen now, and starting to darken.
“Lord Fuckin’ Porcupine!” she said, smiling, “You want wine?”
“Only a barbarian would have wine before breakfast,” I said. “Bring me beer.”
Beer and a plate of the same food the others were eating appeared before me. “You missed her fuckin’ holiness this morning,” Elena said conversationally. “I figured she was going to have a fit over the shit we serve for breakfast, but… she was actually pretty nice.” The admission seemed to take its toll on Elena. “Mr. Toothless was funny.”
“There are worse people in this world.”
The demands of the other patrons ended the conversation, and I dug into my meal. It was just what I needed; nothing like a plate full of intestines to calm one’s intestines. Another beer arrived unbidden as I finished the first, Elena replacing my mug with no conversation. I looked up to see Uncle Harkin watching her.
“So, Lord Porcupine,” the man sitting to the right of me said, his breath scented by his rotting teeth. His nose was bloated and shot through with veins; the bones of his face had receded behind the flesh, leaving his skin slack and wan. But he lifted one prematurely gray eyebrow and for a moment at least his face reflected the spirit that lived within. “What you doing here?”
“I was thinking of buying the mountain,” I said.
His eyes widened for a moment before the absurdity of my statement sank in. He laughed and hit me hard enough between the shoulder blades to make my skin tingle. “Feckin Porcupine!” he bellowed. He nudged the man on his other side. “Lord Porcupine’s buying the mountain!”
The man to my other side dug his bony elbow into my ribs. “I’m buying the feckin sky,” he said. Young still, twenty years old at a guess, but already fading. The crowd laughed and his smile showed a full set of teeth. Another lord of this town.
“Your feckin sky can kiss my ass,” another man shouted from down the table. “I’m buying the feckin stars.”
“Like feck you are,” the kid shouted back, “stars is part of the sky. I’m buyin’ all of it.”
Merriment followed, shouts and threats and curses, and though I said not a single word for the rest of my meal, I was accepted into the fraternity of those who would buy what no man can own. No common man, at any rate. This is how it always begins.
At the anointed hour the servants of the mountain shuffled out together, a single many-legged animal. Another beer arrived with no conversation, and while I savored it I listened to heavy footsteps above, moving down the hallway toward the stairs. After another gulp Bags’ legs were visible on the stairs; another sip of lovely beer and the rest of Bags was there, ragged, big, smiling. “H’lo Martin,” he said.
“Ready to go find the blacksmith?” I asked.
He took in a long breath, idly pulling at the gaps in his armor. “I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes he does.” Katherine was at the top of the stairs. She must have synchronized her steps with Bags’. My mother would have liked Katherine, I thought.
“Kat’s right,” I said. “I keep my promises.” I stood and drained the last of my mug.
“Are you drunk already?” Katherine asked as she descended the stairs to my level.
“On a relative scale, no,” I said. “Let’s go find a blacksmith.” I prayed silently to the array of gods who were allegedly watching our ridiculous drama from their comfortable cloud-chairs in the sky that the blacksmith in this town would be a competent armorer. Otherwise paying my debt would involve more travel, and keeping my poor, pent-up money in the dark for that much longer.
The three of us quit the shelter of the tavern into a steady mist and turned toward the mountain. To my left the brothel, quiet at this time of the morning. Two girls sat on the front porch, airing themselves, scratching unselfconsciously, as tired and used-up as the miners were. One of them, her brown hair showing hints of red, dingy shirt open to her navel to reveal the gentle curve of her breasts — still high and proud even while the rest of her bent under the weight of her servile existence. She met my gaze with an obscene gesture. This is our world.
Beyond the brothel, a store, with a big man in well-kept armor sitting under a shelter by the door. Certainly a deterrent to petty crime, but useless in an uprising. The man’s presence told me what I needed to know about the town. Poor, but respectful of authority.
Ahead on the right, past a temple to my new best friend Prany and a solidly-built edifice with no markings at all, the sound of a hammer on iron rang in the still morning air. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor, the slate roof over the work area creating a curtain of falling water around the perimeter.
I swallowed when I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. His pale skin shone in the heavy air, his almost-white hair lay in a bulky braid down his back. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.
Mrkl had no reason to be here, but he had no reason to be anywhere else, either. He wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.
If there is any evidence at all that the gods still live, that evidence is irony. I had sent a vague prayer into the sky, hoping for an armorer, and in return the gods gave me Mrkl. The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for their own petty pleasure, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I rehearsed my greeting as I approached.
Mrkl glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”
“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.
“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”
“You have money?”
“In fact, I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”
He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”
I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.
“You want the best?”
“Of course,” I said.
Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy.
“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs armor.”
Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.
He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”
“I’d rather pay you now.”
I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.
“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”
Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”
She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued from the day before, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. Mrkl’s two assistants had stopped what they were doing to watch the drama. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money. But you are not rid of me.”
Carefully I pulled out three fat golden coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. More coins free to explore the world, and perhaps as a result Bags would live long enough to lose his molars as well.
Kat took the coins and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”
Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”
Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”
Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “One more thing,” I said to Mrkl. “A blade. For a small hand. Easily concealed.”
Mrkl cocked his head and watched me with narrow eyes. “A gift?”
I nodded. “Do you know Elena?”
He smiled. “Of course I do.” His smile faded. “I can help. You going to teach her how to use it?”
I considered my answer carefully. “As time allows.”
He inhaled through his nose, inflating his lungs and expanding his chest. “You do it or you don’t.” I regretted ever letting Mrkl meet my mother.
“As time allows.”
“Will she take care of it?”
“I think so, yes.”
“All right. Single edge, yeah?”
Best for a first knife to limit the ways one can cut oneself. “Yeah. But… don’t neglect the thrust. When she needs to use it, her enemy will be close.”
Katherine said, “Martin,” but Bags banged her shoulder before she could continue. I pretended not to notice.
“I can do that,” Mrkl said. “I’ll have the shirt done in three days. The knife, five days. I’ve been looking for a good challenge for Benji. We’re all tired of forging drills.” The skinny kid smiled.
“You’re Benji?” I asked.
His eyes were on the floor in front of my feet. “Yes, sir.”
“This knife is important,” I said.
“Have you ever made a knife before?” I asked.
Mrkl said, “I’ll—” but I held up my hand forcefully and he fell silent.
“Have you ever made a knife before?” I asked again.
“Then listen carefully to the guidance of your master, and understand this: making a knife is like a prayer. It is a holy thing, an instrument of life and death.”
Mrkl laughed. “Don’t let him frighten you, kid. But we’re going to have to make a damn good knife.”
I didn’t try to hide my relief. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.
“You going to be sober?”
I hesitated and said, “probably not.”
“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”
“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”
“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.
I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I tipped my head back and let the rain fall in my face.
“Are you all right?”
I brought my gaze down to earth and turned to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. I lifted my face back up to the rain, blinking when a heavy drop struck my eye. “Never better.”